Ruby Glaskin: How do you make your Edinburgh Fringe show accessible?

Lucy Jane Parkinson in Joan at Marlborough Theatre, Brighton. Lucy Jane Parkinson in Joan
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Preparing for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe comes with an epic producing to-do list and an even bigger fundraising strategy. As a result, there are always things you just don’t have the time to do or the money for – we’d all like to plaster the meadows with our massive billboards. However, as a producer who has worked closely with Josh Hepple to deliver disability equality training in theatre and is currently supporting Deaf-led theatre company PAD Productions, I didn’t want access to be one of those compromises.

Trying to make Joan accessible within my limited time and budget has not been easy and it is not by any means perfect. But it has been possible. Through my work producing Derby Theatre’s artist development programme, In Good Company, I have had to think about creative ways to supporting our Deaf-led associate company PAD Productions. One of these was trying to make more of our studio work accessible to Deaf audiences so they could widen their experience of theatre, and as a result I stumbled across the Difference Engine. The Difference Engine is a pioneering access system, developed by Talking Birds Theatre Company, to provide access to experimental, small-scale and site-specific performance. It broadcasts captions (and potentially much more) to mobile devices: smartphones and tablets. The Difference Engine is currently a prototype access system, and so In Good Company decided to help develop the equipment by trialling it with our associate companies.

The crucial thing about the Difference Engine is that it’s much more affordable than traditional captioning and British Sign Language, making it possible for one-off, small-scale shows to be made accessible to Deaf audiences. Of course it is by no means a replacement for traditional captioning and BSL, and therefore is very much designed to help the independent sector, rather than commercial theatres.

As an associate at Derby Theatre, Milk Presents has been able to bring the Difference Engine with us to the fringe, and provide captioning for every performance of Joan. This is a great example of when NPOs can support smaller companies outside of their venues. However, making it possible has required a lot of our time, from inputting the script into the machine and making sure we have someone available to operate it, through to daily negotiations with front-of-house staff and the fringe office. The fringe is certainly not geared up for this sort of additional front of house support, and we are still working closely with Underbelly to refine the FOH process for Deaf audiences. There are no BSL trained FOH staff and it is not always possible for a Milk Presents team member to be present before the show, as we need all hands on deck for our 10-minute get-in. So we are working on providing clear signage and handouts. Again, nowhere near perfect, but it’s a start.

Our other major challenge is that our venue is not wheelchair accessible and we had huge dilemmas over this when getting Joan programmed. We did not want to exclude wheelchair users from seeing the show. This year, we are lucky that Joan is part of the Underbelly Untapped season of new writing, and with that comes support we were not able to access at any other venue. Without this support we would have been unable to take the show to the fringe at all, but unfortunately the only Underbelly space that works for our show is inaccessible. In previous years, we have been stung by performing in a space that wasn’t right for us and with so much time and money invested in the fringe, we couldn’t afford to risk this again.

However having worked closely with Hepple, a disability equality trainer, and Anthony Roberts, producer of the sadly missed Escalator East to Edinburgh scheme and advocate of disability equality in the arts, I felt very uneasy about this. Previously I had been living in ignorant bliss – not really having considered it. But my work with both Hepple and Roberts meant that was no longer the case and I found it increasingly hard to justify. As a step towards change we decided to do a one-off performance of Joan, restaged to fit a different space, in an accessible venue.

This again was not straightforward and took many conversations back and forth between the Underbelly, fringe and Milk Presents. It is also additional work for the creative and technical teams, as well as incurring costs for set transportation. However because of this additional work, we have also decided to offer this as a relaxed performance – since we would be spending time thinking about the staging anyway, we may as well include that in our process. Yesterday our production manager attended a brilliant event set up by the fringe participants’ office all about how to make your performance relaxed, and is now in consultation with the National Autistic Society about our plans for the relaxed performance.

As Jess Thom rightly pointed out in The Stage, “It’s time to move accessibility up the to-do list so we can take action together”. I believe that, if more companies taking shows to the fringe prioritised access, we would start to see more change. Underbelly has been cited as the least accessible venue of the Big Four, but I have been positively encouraged by their enthusiasm to make this work. We have always had a great experience working with Underbelly and there is a mutual respect between us and them. Therefore, I am delighted to have continued working with them. I truly believe the conversations I’ve had with them regarding access for Joan have started to shift perspectives, and I think this meaningful engagement with venues allows them to realise it is possible to make more work accessible. It is very easy for venues to see concrete stairs and frantic FOH as insurmountable problems, but if they are never asked to think about alternatives, they won’t ever have reason to do so.

An accessible production of Joan can be seen at Underbelly Med Quad on August 20